January 31, 2009 – Who would have thought a little ice storm could result in the complete loss of all modern services we depend on?
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Every time I breathe a sigh of relief and foolishly believe I’m “prepared,” something unexpected whacks me upside the head and reminds me that I’m not.
A little over four months ago we got whacked by a hurricane, literally. The remnants of Hurricane Ike swept through town, taking out trees and power lines. We were without power for almost a day. With considerable effort I obtained an electrical generator and got through that crisis relatively easily. I figured, naively, that the hurricane was the worst disaster I was likely to face. My misplaced sense of preparedness was also bolstered by the fact that the weather was warm and dry back in September.
On Monday night, January 26, it began raining, and continued doing so night and day for about forty-eight hours. As the rain reached ground level it froze on everything it touched. This is a classic ice storm. Ice may not strike one as a formidable weather phenomenon, but I have to say, besides hurricanes and tornadoes, I think ice is one of the most destructive weather phenomena there is, solely because of the weight of it. It simply crushes trees, bushes and power poles under the immense weight.
See the “little” branch lying in the street in the photo above? I moved it out of the middle of the street, and it must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds because of all the ice on it. Around the base of most trees lies a large pile of such branches.
After the first day of rain, on Tuesday, I started up my generator that I purchased in September and powered my computer and a hot plate to make some coffee. For a time it looked like I might be able to endure the power outage, which I figured would last no more than a couple of days, the damage to my own house notwithstanding. About two hours after starting up the generator it abruptly shut down, perhaps because of the splashing rain even though I had covered the top of the generator to protect it from the rain. What’s funny is that numerous times since September I thought about rigging up an exhaust ventilation system in the basement so I could put the generator down there during rainy weather. Oh, how I wish I had listened to myself.
After losing all electricity whatsoever I decided to bail out and headed to a motel fifteen miles away. Unlike September, it was raining, I was without electricity in the middle of winter, and colder weather on the way. That first day I had my choice of three motels, all of which were accepting guests. By the second day all these motels had “No vacancy” signs taped to their front doors and were saying “Sorry” to the people desperately calling on the phone every couple of minutes. By the second day, neither a motel room nor an electrical generator could be had at any price. As repair workers poured into the region, the competition for motel rooms only intensified. My motel, which is probably one-quarter full normally, is completely full now. The motel is overwhelmed and cannot clean the rooms regularly. Whole families are living in a single room, and ninety percent of the guests here are local residents. Strangely enough, everyone has been really nice and tolerant. Sitting in the motel lobby, chatting over coffee, I’ve gotten to know several of my townspeople who I wouldn’t likely have gotten to know otherwise, which is one of the fringe benefits of this crisis.
After the second day of rain, followed by snow, Wednesday, things got worse. More trees and power lines went down, utility poles snapped in half, we lost all electricity, telephone, cell phone, cable television, gasoline and even water, as the entire town’s water supply was shut off because the electric pumps could not fill the water tanks without electricity. Of course, the gas stations could not pump gasoline, so people were pouring into the town where I’m staying from miles around, looking for gasoline.
Ice-covered iron gazebo
In a matter of forty-eight hours we were teleported back to the nineteenth century, when my house was built, but without the services available to people in the nineteenth-century: wood burning fireplaces, wood burning cook stoves, water wells, oil lamps, horses and horse-drawn vehicles. My neighbor sagely observed that it was surreal that while our town looked like a war zone, just fifteen miles away life was perfectly normal, with few signs of damage. Incredibly, there are regions that fared much worse than mine! Driving down the roads after the first couple of days was like driving an obstacle course. One had to weave left and right, using both sides of the highway to skirt around trees, power poles, dangling wires. A huge, ice-laden branch crashed onto my lane of the highway just a hundred feet ahead as I approached. Thankfully I was driving slowly enough to take evasive action. On the way back down that same highway a couple of hours later a tree had fallen across it and some enterprising blokes with chainsaws quickly sawed it up and traffic nonchalantly resumed flowing. Another time I nearly got snared on a dangling wire that I didn’t see until the last second.
My neighbors, whose house is largely natural gas-powered were living pretty comfortably. Since I wasn’t getting any use out of my electrical generator, I lent it to them and they were soon watching television and using their computer while keeping warm, cooking on their gas stove, and showering under warm water, that is, until the town shut off the water supply. But my resourceful neighbor, who is a farmer, filled a large farm water tank before the water was cut off, so they were able to trudge along even after the water was shut off. I considered buying a gas stove once, but decided on electric because I figured we’d probably never lose electricity for more than a few days. I was wrong. I’m reconsidering buying a gas stove and a gas water heater. With those, I’d have been able to mimic my neighbors and stay put. On the other hand, natural gas is facing the same kind of peak situation as oil, so even it may become scarce or costly in the future.
My poor electric meter ripped from the house
For me, getting through this disaster was not as simple as waiting for “them” to restore the electricity, because my electric meter was ripped from the house by the heavy, ice-covered wires. The electric company quickly severed my wires, leaving me utterly disconnected even if the electricity is restored. The next challenge was getting an electrician to fix my meter, quite a challenge considering that there’s only one electrician around these parts and he was suffering as much as me. I got a hold of him once after the first day, but not in the several days since. In desperation, I called a commercial electrical contractor, which seems willing to repair my house. Like the motel, which has made an exception to its bold “No pets” sign in the lobby and taken in family pets, the commercial electrical contractor is making an exception by agreeing to working on my house.
I really have to commend the repair workers who are making heroic efforts to restore services quickly, despite the collapsing economy. That is an unexpected but welcome surprise. News about when we might see services restored is like a rollercoaster. One day we’re looking at two to four weeks to restore electricity; the next day it might be a matter of a few days; the next, the repair efforts failed and it’s back to a few weeks; the next, someone from town informs me that part of the town does have power. Hopefully, I’ll have power within days, if I can get the contractor out there as soon. And hopefully my water pipes won’t have frozen and ruptured. And hopefully, my freezer and refrigerator won’t have thawed out, destroying a few hundred dollars worth of food, after I just stocked up. Until now that hasn’t been a problem because the house has been colder inside than the refrigerator! But the weather is starting to warm up, so time is of the essence now.
I lived through the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, then the hurricane here in 2008, which was actually a little worse than the earthquake for me. But this ice storm is by far the worst disaster I’ve lived through. Each new disaster pinpoints where one is unprepared, and this one is no exception. Contrary to my past assumptions, one really does have to be prepared for a complete breakdown of everything all at once. As the economy continues to collapse and energy distribution becomes increasingly unreliable, we will likely see these total breakdowns become more frequent and longer lasting, not that this one is close to being over. And whereas this event was remarkably specific in its damage, leaving one person in eight in the entire state of Kentucky without electricity, nearby regions are operating normally and affording those displaced from their homes with motel rooms and restaurants. A more widespread crisis may not be so generous. In some future crises such as this we may have no choice but to stick it out in our homes.
Incredible as it seems to me, I’m back in my house. I have electricity and water and the heater is running. While I was reposing in my motel room, my neighbor called to tell me that the electricity company took it upon itself to repair my electric meter and hook my house back up to the utility pole this afternoon, a Sunday no less. It was definitely a level of service above and beyond the call of duty, and a huge relief. These people who made a heroic effort to restore the electricity so swiftly are awesome and they have my eternal gratitude. In all I spent only five nights in a motel, which is longer than I would have liked but far shorter than the initial prognosis of two to four weeks without power. And thank goodness the weather was cold because I didn’t even lose any food in the refrigerator or freezer. With the house reaching a low of 35 degrees inside, even the ice in the freezer didn’t melt after five days. I hope the people still without power have their service restored quickly as well.